Could a non-believer in a god sin?
How would a philosopher evaluate Aleister Crowley: ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’?
Answer by Gershon Velvel
What is a ‘sin’? I read in Wikipedia:
“In a religious context, sin is the act of transgression against divine law. Sin can also be viewed as any thought or action that endangers the ideal relationship between an individual and God; or as any diversion from the perceived ideal order for human living. ‘To sin’ has been defined from a Greek concordance as ‘to miss the mark’.”
What is wrong with that statement? — You might think that the last sentence doesn’t seem to fit here at all.
Aristotle in his Ethics gives the example of an archer aiming a bow to illustrate ethical judgement. Making correct judgements is something that requires care and the appropriate training. In archery, you have to allow for the distance of the target, the direction and strength of the wind and so on. In a competition, where you have the final shot and need to score at least a ‘9’ and your arrow only hits the ‘6’ ring, you’ve lost, and maybe your team lost too.
And so it is, the Greeks thought, with ethical judgements. When you need to take care, and you ‘miss the mark’, that’s something you might regret, possibly for a long time. The assumption here is that one is aiming for the mark. We want to do good, do the right thing.
It might be something seemingly trivial. The doughnuts in the supermarket you thought were jam doughnuts turned out to have a vanilla filling. No big deal, but suppose that this was a cancer patient’s dying request. Regardless of how your friend takes the disappointment, you castigate yourself for not taking sufficient care to look at the label first. The shelf said ‘doughnuts’, and you assumed ‘jam doughnuts’. And now it’s too late to make amends. Your lack of care is the thing that rankles. You feel guilt.
Not a ‘sin’? What would Jesus say? Callousness, not taking care, is the ultimate sin in a religion based on the precept of ‘love’. Let’s suppose that just as you were approaching the doughnut shelf, you remembered that you had to make an appointment to get your piano tuned. That stray ‘selfish’ thought at a time when your friend’s need should have been uppermost in your mind was all the distraction you needed. — It’s not difficult to see why a thinker like Nietzsche would discern a cruel streak underlying the religion of loving kindness.
Then what about real criminals? The story, as a Greek would tell it, is that through a series of ‘missed shots’, you deviate further and further away from a correct view of the target. For example, you come to believe that a successful robbery is something to be proud of, rather than ashamed. This is the staple of gangster movies: loyalty, obedience, punishment and reward are concepts that every gang member implicitly understands. As the saying goes, ‘there’s honour amongst thieves.’
With God in the picture, it seems we are playing a different game entirely. Whatever we conceive as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the word of God is the final arbiter. Ethical laws are God’s laws. The religious concept of ‘sin’, in essence, recognizes the fundental difference between which actions you or I call ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and those which are so in reality. No room for quibbling.
God doesn’t need to give a reason for His commands. If the command is, ‘Never mix cotton and wool in the same garment,’ as the priests of ancient Israel told, then regardless of the whys or wherefores, by ignoring God’s law you have defied God. You have deliberately stuck your finger in God’s eye. No punishment is too severe for one who defies God.
‘Missing the mark’ in an archery competition or some other sport, is something to regret. You mentally go through the motions, trying to work out where you went wrong. We all make judgements we regret. The feeling of guilt implies something more, over and above regret: the sense of accountability. It needn’t be accountability to another person or persons. As a would-be follower of Aleister Crowley, you might feel guilt about failing to take an opportunity to enjoy carnal delights because of the vestiges of a ‘conscience’ instilled by your strict religious upbringing. You have sinned against your ‘true nature’.
As a non-believer and nihilist, this makes sense to me, although, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, sin is ‘not one of my words’. Things are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for me simply by virtue of the things I care about. When I aim to do better, and do worse, then given an appropriate context that is something to be feel bad about, guilty, even. But ‘sin’? Pass.